Georgia State basketball coach Ron Hunter doesn’t want anyone to think that Thursday’s game against rival Georgia Southern is anything more than just another test.
But there is more than bragging rights at stake.
A victory would be the Panthers’ ninth consecutive, a surprising new school record for a team still learning their new coach’s systems. Hunter said a record is nice, but that’s not the motivation.
“When I was hired, no one here said, ‘Coach we brought you here to beat Georgia Southern,’ ” he said. “At the end of the day we want bigger things.”
Those bigger things include making the NCAA tournament. Hunter recognizes the rivalry between the two schools, a distant “we’re the real GSU” feud that seems to be getting more bitter now that Georgia State has football. He recognizes that his administration, Georgia State’s alumni and its fans want to beat the Eagles. He wants the win too, but he wants it so that his seniors can have another positive memory as they continue to work toward the goals.
“This is a big game for Eric Buckner, Jihad Ali and James Fields,” he said about three of the team’s six seniors. “I want them to be able to take something away. I want them to say we’ve had the longest winning streak in school history. I’m more worried about us getting better.”
The previous streak was set by the 2000-01 team, the last to make it to the NCAA tournament. It finished 29-5 under coach Lefty Driesell, advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The team has struggled since, posting just two more winning records, none since going 20-9 in 2003-04.
The players, like their coach, are trying not to get too caught up in the winning streak, what’s at stake and possibilities.
“It’s very big, but coach is constantly telling us not to think about it as a rivalry,” Devonta White said. “‘Don’t focus on the streak [focus on the goals].’”
The team’s chances of setting the mark may rest on White’s slender shoulders.
Just 5-10 and 158 pounds, White leads the team in scoring (13.1 points per game) and shot attempts (125).
A blur on the court, White races around the top of Georgia State’s preferred zone defense, or up the court in Hunter’s fast-paced offense. As subdued as Hunter is about the possibility of setting a new record streak, he’s the opposite about White’s potential.
“Devonta, when it’s said and done, may be the best player I’ve ever coached,” Hunter said.
Just a sophomore, White is still learning how to use his skills, particularly his speed. Before the Panthers played Florida International, coached by 11-time NBA all-star Isiah Thomas, Hunter talked to White about how Thomas used his speed to control games in college at Indiana and in the NBA at Detroit.
“I know Devonta can be a great player,” Hunter said. “He’s got to understand he’s going to be great. Once that happens, you won’t be able to stop Devonta.”
White said Hunter is constantly telling him to keep moving because when he moves fast, the team plays better. His scoring is a product. Playing in the more textbook style of offense favored by former coach Rod Barnes, White averaged just 5.2 points per game. Hunter’s system allows White to push the ball and find spaces on the court to shoot.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” White said. “It’s similar to my high school system [at Centennial]. It lets the players play. We get to play our game.”
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu